2020 was a challenging year, not only because of a global pandemic but also because it was a year that vividly highlighted the racial inequalities that still exist in the UK. Learning that black and minority ethnic groups are at higher risk of dying from COVID-19 compared to people of white ethnicity filled me, as a person of mixed black and white heritage, with real alarm. It was further worrying to learn that the increased likelihood of death was linked to societal inequalities and discrimination. Delving into Health Foundation analysis, the extent to which black and minority ethnic groups make up a disproportionately large share of high risk ‘key workers’ was eye opening (a point I’ll revisit). Then came the slaying of George Floyd in America, which ignited Black Lives Matter protests across the globe.
Fast forward to the start of 2021, when I had the chance to look at UK Music’s latest Diversity Report. Examining the figures relating to ethnic minorities in music related workforces, Black, Asian and ethnic minority representation descends the higher up the job ladder one goes: 42.1 percent at apprentice/intern level, 34.6 percent at entry-level, 21.6 percent at mid-level and 19.9 percent at senior level. I could not help but draw comparisons between the glass ceilings faced by Black, Asian and ethnic minority people in employment and demographic, geographical and socioeconomic inequalities. For me, the coronavirus pandemic brought the inequalities in my own industry into sharp focus.
As a young composer I remember attending a talk given by a senior figure from a prominent British music publisher. The talk was specifically about how to get published and advice was given to the group of eager listeners as to what they should be doing to have a shot at being published. Have your works performed by respected orchestras, collaborate with well-known conductors and be recognised in your field, were all points that were mentioned. Some years later, I learnt that this publisher had published the work of a very successful stock market investor, who adhered to none of the mentioned requirements. It was at this point that the nepotism within the industry, that never really gets talked about openly when you’re a student, truly hit home. On the flipside, I am continuously being invited to talks, debates and symposiums relating to the lack of diversity in classical music. What we should really be genuine about are the current bad practices in place that ensure that any attempts at promulgating diversity within the music industry are challenged. One cannot be inclusive if the only space you are willing to include minoritised communities is in conversations about inclusion.
'If we want classical music to survive and thrive moving forward, it is crucial that the industry becomes more inclusive and representative at all levels now, not tomorrow.'
The toppling of the statue to the slaver Edward Colston in Bristol, amid the Black Lives Matter protests, was among last year’s most potent images. Reading the views of some colleagues on social media, one of whom is a pedagogue at a London conservatoire, about the way change was being affected was illuminating. It was astonishing to see the number of people who were totally unwilling to understand the reasons why people around the world had had enough. The debates that ensued regarding statues being a mark of history was, to me, a weird one, perhaps because I can relate to people being affronted by a statue of a slave trader standing in a UK city in 2020. Yet, when we look at the debate around Brexit and the difficulties it has brought about for many touring musicians, the resounding response from most colleagues is a negative one towards the constraints now in place. But if we look back to a time before the current situation, many a centre-left musician failed to confront the increasingly toxic discourse around migration until it was too late. The point I am trying to make is that if we want classical music to survive and thrive moving forward, it is crucial that the industry becomes more inclusive and representative at all levels now, not tomorrow.
Some organisations are taking the call to change seriously and have started taking tangible action. Last year I joined the Ivors Academy Board after composer Stephen McNeff made the conscious decision to stand down from the Board, to support the Academy’s commitments to championing equality, diversity and inclusion. PRS Foundation’s Power Up initiative launched to specifically tackle anti-Black racism in music and Hal Leonard Europe announced the appointment of an external advisory group to focus on equality, diversity and inclusion. As with all things, time will be the judge of the success of these initiatives, but they definitely feel more genuine than posting black squares on social media along with catchy hashtags.
I increasingly believe that 'making it' is finding the voice to fight for your art, even if you have to step on a few eggshells along the way. The sooner that gatekeepers realise we are all in this together and that we need to sort out our issues relating to equality and diversity now, the faster we can work toward other issues and stop allowing our collective culture to be trod on.